Category Archives: Religious violence

Is religion the major cause of wars? Karen Armstrong argues “No.”

Fields of Blood book coverOne only has to turn on the TV these days, or go to any internet news feed, to be confronted by horrific images of religious violence in the Middle East.  For those who saw the images of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the gunman murdering the wounded policeman on the pavement outside those offices, the religious violence seems all around us. So: Is religion to blame for most of the mass violence in the world?

Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood (Random House, 500 pages) traces the history of warfare since the invention of settled agriculture. Armstrong, a former Catholic Nun, has become one of the English-speaking world’s foremost scholars on the history of religion. She points out that in hunter-gather societies, there is no real warfare, except occasional skirmishes with nearby tribes, since the entire population is needed for food collection, and there is no agricultural surplus to sustain a kingly priestly, or soldier class. Once settled farming begins, and farmers are producing enough to support more than their own families,  a class of rulers, soldiers and priests can emerge.

The pace of agricultural innovation is terribly slow, however, so the only way that the new ruling class can expand its wealth is to conquer another nearby area and seize its surplus. That’s the start of warfare.

Throughout history, religions have been ideologies that propped up the legitimacy of the ruling class. (Have you ever known of a society where the major religion denied the legitimacy of the ruling class? How did that work out?) Warfare, Armstrong claims, occurs at times of social and economic change, and religion becomes enlisted in the political cause, rather than being the cause.

She also argues that the major conflicts of the 20th century were not religious. The first world war was not religious, and Germany didn’t start world War II  to spread either of its two recognized religions (Catholicism, and Lutheranism).   In the 1930s, Japan didn’t invade it’s neighbors to spread Shinto and Buddhism: China already had Confucianism and Buddhism, Thailand was already Buddhist, and Korea already had Buddhism.

The most interesting sections of the book deal with the crusades of the Middle Ages, and the religious ward of the 15 and 1600s, where religion really was at the center of the conflicts. The author has a knowledge of history that leaves me for dead.  For anybody who wants to get into the history of religion in a serious way, and is prepared to wade through some serious research, this book is a five star piece of work.

For those interested in reading some further reviews before committing to an arduous read, here is one from  The Guardian,  the New York Times   and here is publisher Random House’s description of the book’s subject matter. It’s a meaty read, but it’s worth it.

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My vote for the Nobel Peace Prize: the girl who defied the Taliban.

Sometimes there are people who seem to have guts and moral fibre that leave the rest of us behind. 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck a year ago by the Taliban, for advocating that girls should be allowed to go to school.

MalalaShe had been writing a blog about life in the Swat Valley, where the Talibs were gradually taking over, forcing girls’ schools to close by threats of violence. Violence was so common that one day, when her younger brother was playing in their front yard, she asked what he was doing. “Digging a grave,” he answered. The Taliban found where Malala went to school, got on her bus and fired. The results became world news. After surgery and rehab in England, she is now (this Wednesday) on the anniversary of the attack talking about her future. She can’t go back to Pakistan yet, but she wants to improve her education, and keep pushing.

She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a long shot, since there are over 200 nominees. But I hope she gets it.

Malala reminds me a lot of people who have stood up against injustice, and/or to promote the cause of women. Rosa Parks may not have been shot or lynched  for refusing to go to the back of the bus with the “coloured folk,” in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, but she could have been. Protesters in Egypt two years ago risked death in the hope of democracy. Aun Sung Sui Kee endured 20 years of house arrest in Burma for upsetting the military by winning a democratic election.

The world needs more Malalas. The world need more people like you and I to give to charities that are specifically directed to educating girls in third world countries. The world needs people to put their money where their mouth is.

Malala has a book out, the kindle version is here, and there is a paperback in Book Depository.

Best wishes until next week.